NBCUniversal’s Ad Sales Queen Upended the Industry Once Before. Now She’s at It Again

Linda Yaccarino on the upfronts and her battles with Nielsen and digital advertising

Chris Loupos for Adweek
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When the dust settled after this summer’s upfront negotiations concluded, it’s no surprise which ad sales chief had once again secured the biggest windfall. That would be Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships for NBCUniversal, who wrapped upfront sales of close to $6.5 billion for her company’s portfolio of two broadcast networks, 15 cable networks and more than 50 digital properties.

As NBC reclaimed the 18-49 demo lead last season among broadcasters, Yaccarino leveraged buyer demand for shows like breakout drama This Is Us and resurgent Saturday Night Live to secure CPM upfront increases in the high single digits, while volume was up 8 percent across the company’s entire portfolio.

Factoring in the upfront business for NBCUniversal’s three major sporting events in 2018—the Super Bowl, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Telemundo’s Spanish-language rights to the World Cup—that $6.5 billion figure inches close to $7 billion, according to sources (Yaccarino herself declines to confirm it). This year, she’ll oversee more than $10 billion in ad revenue for the company.

It’s another triumph for Yaccarino, who arrived at NBCUniversal six years ago, after heading up ad sales for Turner. She initially was in charge of cable and digital sales, but within two years was elevated to head up all the cable and broadcast networks under a single portfolio—a then-revolutionary shake-up that was eventually adopted by almost all of her competitors.

The Long Island, N.Y., resident was in an understandably jubilant mood as she relaxed on a sofa in her midtown Manhattan office and reflected on this year’s upfront, her battles with digital advertisers and Nielsen, and why she’s “the most competitive person you’ll ever meet.”

Adweek: Your upfront volume gains were higher than your competitors. What were you able to accomplish that others did not?
Linda Yaccarino: It’s a combination of things. I talk a lot about content, data and distribution. We have this giant mountain of content that is operating on all cylinders. We were also very strategic in how we went to the marketplace and said, “Let’s talk turkey: we are the biggest slice of what you can invest, and now there’s an ease of transaction across every screen, and we have the marketing and the data capabilities to deliver that to you.” People for the first time registered data-driven deals directly, so instead of registering by Bravo or USA, they said, we want to register this budget for the Audience Studio [data offerings]. That was a very big change, and people are looking at us differently now that we can transact in that way.

In March, you made that big commitment to transacting a billion dollars in ad inventory this year on data-based advertising via the Audience Studio. Now that upfronts are done, do you think you’re going to meet that lofty goal?
We are going to get pretty damn close. We more than tripled the amount of business we did last year, almost every single person renewed and the budgets have consistently escalated in size. That part of our business is really exploding.

You had an aggressive approach to selling Saturday Night Live last year, with a reduced ad load. 
In hindsight, as provocative as it looked back then, on a post-analysis basis, Saturday Night Live was one of the most efficient things that any advertiser invested in. Our ratings were the highest they’ve been in 24 seasons, so as much of an increase in CPM that we asked people to pay for, the ratings went up to such an extraordinary degree, it was one of the most efficient, highest ROI of any piece of content they can invest in.

The season’s last four episodes aired live across all time zones, which was a bonus to anyone who bought inventory in the upfront. Could that happen again this year?
That’s still under discussion. That is probably not going to be decided until early September. It will be a content decision.

During this year’s upfront, Yaccarino leveraged buyer interest in Saturday Night Live, This Is Us and the Sunday and Thursday Night Football packages to secure CPM increases in the high single digits and volume gains of 8 percent.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 21, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.